Written by Diogo Ferreira and Edited by Paolo Stohlman

A brief context

There is little doubt that the European Union (EU) has been evolving from a simple supranational organisation of economic cooperation between member states to a more complex supranational political power in which decision-making is the outcome of an amalgamation of federal, intergovernmental, and functional procedures (Bale, 2013). The implementation of EU treaties has evolved the institutional setting of the EU, predominantly the European Parliament (EP), the only directly elected body of the EU. The EP is a symbol of representative democracy in the EU, and, over the years, it has been granted formalised, legitimised, and institutionalised powers, leading to the ‘parliamentarisation of the EU’ (Rittberger, 2012).

However, there is still a growing concern about the democratic nature of the EU. More than a decade ago, Simon Hix et al. (2007) argued that the more powers European bodies have, the greater the expectation of accountability and transparency from EU citizens. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ debate points out that the EU functions as an arena dominated by experts and lobbyists, whose criticisms point to the interests of the European citizens being overridden by the interests of the European elites (McCormick, 2014). Additionally, there is a supremacy in the EU of technocratic criterion over the principle of popular democratic legitimacy (Rodríguez-Aguilera de Prat, 2016).

The creation of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)

To tackle the lack of democratic legitimacy, the EU considered adopting measures of more direct and participatory democracy. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty laid the foundations for the creation of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), formally established in 2009. The ECI is the only instrument of direct citizen input for EU legislation. Any proposed initiative requires at least one million signatures across the EU for it to be sent to the European Commission to receive a formal reply (European Commission, 2015).

The European Citizens’ Initiative is an example of Fritz Scharpf’s (1999) concept of ‘input legitimacy’, which, put in simple terms, is power by the people. In theory, the ECI aimed to provide a remedy to the democratic deficit by enabling citizens to become directly involved in EU politics (Kentmen-Cin, 2014). However, three major setbacks prevent the ECI from being an effective tool of participatory democracy in the EU.

The undemocratic setbacks of the ECI

First, to obtain the necessary signatures, a group must be organised by at least seven different actors from seven different member states. This is quite a hindrance to citizen engagement since having one million signatures from people from seven different countries is complicated. According to Richard Youngs (2022), from 2012 to 2020, only five initiatives collected sufficient support.

Second, some initiatives that achieved the criteria for EU legislation either gained little interest or entered into conflict with the European Commission’s agenda. Two initiative examples that garnered more than one million signatures, Right2Water and Ban Glyphosate, received a possible legislation revision, but, so far, no legislative action has been taken by the European Commission (Longo, 2019). Another initiative that received the required signatures was against the EU-US trade deal, Stop the TTIP, which the Commission ruled out completely since it would have clashed with the interests of the EU and the initiative had no power to cease the transatlantic agreement on its own (Youngs, 2022). It is important to notice that while the Commission is obliged to examine an initiative, it is not forced to take any form of action, and the EP Committees only have the right to present the initiative at the European Parliament during a public hearing (Longo, 2019). In this initial phase, the Commission has absolute discretion on how to proceed with the ECI.

Recently, in 2021, an initiative based on minority linguistic rights, Minority SafePack, which also achieved one million signatures, did not receive any further legal action by the Commission (Youngs, 2022). This view provides evidence that if the ECI competes with the Commission’s right of legislative initiative, ‘the possibility for people to propose new legislation might be considered as a way of limiting the Commission’s prerogatives’ (Longo, 2019, p. 198).

And third, it is an overall weak decision-making instrument. According to Jale Tosun et al. (2022), to measure the level of ‘success’ of an initiative from the ECI is to analyse whether the Commission gave a formal reply to the initiative or not. Since most of the initiatives neither garner the necessary criteria to be reviewed nor receive enough attention, the Commission still carries a monopoly over legislative initiatives.

Possible solutions

Some potential solutions would be advisable to, at the very least, alleviate some of the issues with the ECI. To begin with, the EU has already provided a small reform to the ECI in 2020 by separating the right for an initiative and a petition, the former being “a direct call for a specific EU legal instrument” and the latter a tool to oblige the EU to “address matters that fall within a field of activity of the EU and affect the petitioner directly” (European Parliament, 2021). Additionally, the reform amplified the scope of eligible initiatives (Youngs, 2022).

However, most methods for proposing an ECI are online, through the use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Some initiative organisers found it difficult to use the Commission-run digital signature collection system for online campaigning (Longo, 2019). There needs to be a harmonisation of the ECI’s online procedures to allow for their smooth integration into digital campaigns. Furthermore, there is a lack of awareness of the ECI throughout the Member States, as EU and Member State elites still need to better communicate the potential benefits of the ECI. 

Another solution is to increase the European Commission’s transparency towards its citizens. The legislative success of ECIs depends on the Commission’s goodwill and political agreement to proceed with any regulatory revision or proposition of new EU legislation. If the institution lacks clear communication with ECI’s organisers, or even outright ignores proposals which are not in accordance with the EU’s agenda, then we need a clear set of rules that compels the Commission into extensive dialogues with the organisers of an initiative. The Commission should not view citizens’ engagement in EU policy-making as a threat to its legislative initiative, but rather acknowledge the potential benefits of a more participatory approach to democracy.

A third solution would be increasing financial support for potential initiatives. Most initiatives rely on volunteers, and, consequently, smaller groups might find it difficult to launch the initiative with limited resources. Increasing financial support for ECIs might provide equal opportunities for all organisers.

And last, but not least, the expansion of citizen participation beyond the ECI through the Citizen Dialogues (CD) should be a priority. At the CD, citizens are invited to a series of debates with Commissioners, as well as with other EU decision-makers, such as members of the European Parliament, national, regional and local politicians (European Commission, 2022). The CD is, perhaps, the most successful tool of participatory democracy in the EU in terms of participation numbers, at least through informal dialogues. It achieved its peak number of participants in 2019, with over a thousand dialogues being held and involving approximately 200.000 citizens (Youngs, 2022). As of 2023, only one CD event took place, and in 2022 only three were held. This was a result of the Conference for the Future of Europe, which started around March 2021 and lasted up to May 2022. The Conference served as a kind of replacement for the CD, providing citizens with a platform for presenting new ideas and initiatives for the future of the EU. However, the Conference was criticised for being an elitist, top-down channel of interactions, with EU elites, including the EP’s political groups, barely reaching out to citizens and civil society for recommendations during the agenda-setting phase (Johansson & Raunio, 2022). As such, the CD needs to make a return to promote an extensive bottom-up approach to citizen engagement with EU elites, in contrast to the primarily top-down model of the Conference for the Future of Europe.

The proposed solutions will only fix the problems of the ECI in part, of course. But, perhaps, it might attenuate the democratic liabilities of the ECI to make citizen engagement in EU politics easier, more direct, more participated, as well as more user-friendly and dynamic. All in all, for participatory democracy to work in the EU, the ECI needs to be reformed.


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